Simon Jenkins on Film Theory

The latest offering from Jenkins is a real thought provoker, and pleasingly in the more light-hearted realm of film theory. I’ll be giving you my best dose of Žižek in response. The article hinges around the two recent releases of Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, and the most relevant question of historical truths and films selling themselves as accurate representations of those truths.

Jenkins indicates the controversy surrounding these cinematic efforts, neither of which involve the typically wanton shredding of the annals of history in the name of artistic license, but are actually quite sensitive. The morality of torture and the damage of misrepresenting the actions of real people or events are pertinent. He argues, “Cinema in my view is the defining cultural form of the age. It deserves to be taken seriously,” and that, “…films matter.”

I broadly agree, it’s hard to argue that an industry worth billions, that provides humanity with what has become a cornerstone of our escapist entertainments, is unimportant. I do slightly disagree with the point that it deserves to be taken seriously though, based on that definition of “escapist entertainment”. Art in any form, in my understanding, has no relation to the core mechanics and requirements of living, and is intended to remove us from those concerns.

That is still not all to say it’s not important of course. I and I’m sure you, have seen films that have had a formative, or at least lasting, emotional, conceptual or informational impact. I would be deeply upset to lose all the artistic mediums that supplement my enjoyment of life but they are not by definition functional, and my ability to live would not be strictly impeded. To take art, and by extension cinema, too seriously, is in my opinion slightly defeating the point.

As for cinema and the representation of truth, this is a slightly more complex area. For a start, there is a camp of theorists who argue at the extreme end that there is no such thing as historical truth, and trying to establish totally accurate narratives is therefore impossible. I do not belong to this camp however and have even stated while discussing this that, “Good enough,” works for me. Like total scepticism, I find the wholesale redundancy of reasonable certainty to be hugely irritating. I think that with enough evidence and consensus we can arrive at acceptable “truths”.

This is no way excuses some of the more egregious examples of artistic license, seen frequently across film, and fine art for that matter. As a side note, representations of classical antiquity and many other historic scenes in fine art can border on the absurd and, due to the higher intellectual culture of that form, could arguably be seen as more misleading to the layman. Although most of us will have more familiarity with examples in film, the underlying problem is the same – the gap between the author’s artistic representation and the viewer’s understanding of the truth.

Admittedly when younger I would spit hellfire and curse the names of offenders of my more dearly regarded works. That Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy was not a page for page replica of the Iliad, but rather a confused, and literally godless, abomination of cliché and lies, was a memorable one. But gradually one does start to care a little less vehemently about these things, and perhaps you learn that it was never Petersen’s intention to identically recreate Homer’s vision. Maybe that would have been impossible while still producing a good film.

If it works, it works. Short of obscene invention that goes so far as to corrupt or disrespect the original material, we should be willing to be forgiving. Sadly, Troy was still awful, and obscene, but the broad lessons remained and I want to be entertained even at the expense of a few frustrating departures. However, the primary reason I was angry with that film in the first place, is that I was passionate and knowledgeable about that particular bit of literature.

Imagine I had walked into that cinema without ever having heard of the Iliad, Homer or Troy and hadn’t the slightest clue about the ancient world and its history. I would have been informed at the start through some caption that I was watching a film based on the works of Homer, or something similar, and would have possibly walked out thinking I knew a thing or two. Based on Jenkins’ objection to Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, neither of which I have actually yet seen, there is a comparable claim of being based on real events.

To me the fact remains that, unless Bigelow or Affleck had explicitly tried to promote these films as the most accurate representations of the truth as they possibly could have been, much of the responsibility of my walking away from those films with a false impression of real events would lie with me. I was not informed and allowed a blockbuster film to form the basis of my understanding. If something close to that did actually happen, it would still be my duty to be inquisitive enough to establish a better understanding.

On the other hand, these two directors are not necessarily free from criticism for some of their more specific reported infringements. I clearly can’t deliver proper judgement before I’ve watched the films, but Jenkins does point at these contentions. Affleck seems the greater offender if he did indeed give an inherently negatively, and therefore wholly inaccurate and offensive, portrayal of living people. That is insensitive, and although this could be said of historical figures of sentimental or living significance, the damage is less immediate and can be rectified more effectively.

For Bigelow, the issue is much more expansive and requires more time and attention than this article has to spare. More importantly I would like to make my own determinations on her representation of the use of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and whether they amount to what some see an attempt to vindicate it, and its broader use. Neither do I pretend to be up to speed on the actual details, or even have a clue as to their availability. All I currently know is that torture is an immediate moral debate, and was almost inevitably going to court controversy.

Just to drag this back in more direct response to Jenkins’ piece, I have to agree with his assessment that, “Films appeal to inner fears and chauvinist prejudices.” Thus all the laughable patriotism and melodrama of many a war film, which I would apologetically refer back to the point that we shouldn’t always take film too seriously. But I do understand his point that film has still been misused, and can mislead, whatever I think about the issue. If it might help people help themselves, I’m all for the L-rating.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Simon Jenkins on Film Theory

  1. Pingback: Simon Jenkins on Art | tranquilsigh

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